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Economic Nationalism and its Impact on Food Safety

By Sylvain Charlebois

The era we are in is awkward, to say the least. As countries are trying to capitalize on trade agreements, the Western world is also engulfed in a movement of economic nationalism. Largely pushed by the Trump administration, and now by the incoming Biden/Harris camp, most countries are compelled to think differently about their food systems. From a food safety perspective, it changes how countries perceive and manage risks.

Regardless of what happens after the pandemic, countries will continue to trade. Canada has signed three major trade deals in recent years and has just committed to a new pact with the United Kingdom, allowing its commerce footprint to expand throughout Europe. These are familiar grounds for countries like Canada, as most nations have gotten comfortable managing risks related to imported foods. The Safe Food for Canadians Act is designed to modernize our food safety surveillance measures, especially in relation to imported goods.

Recent surveys by Dalhousie suggest almost half of Canadians are concerned about food shortages.

Meanwhile, the issue of food autonomy in the Western world has gained momentum since the beginning of the pandemic. For years, food and agricultural trade rules have allowed nations to specialize in the efficient production of some foods for domestic use, while exporting the rest and importing foods that could not be grown locally. That is now slowly changing. Making Canada more food secure is now more than ever a priority. Recent surveys by Dalhousie suggest almost half of Canadians are concerned about food shortages. Trust in supply chains remains fragile. The pandemic has emphasised the urgency to rebuild systems based on a food democracy model. Many countries have started to invest more in localized food systems by launching programs to support production and encourage consumers to buy locally grown and produced food products. Canada is one of these countries.

This shift will eventually get risk managers to look at food safety differently. It will not necessarily reduce or increase the level of risk related to food safety; sources for potential outbreaks will simply shift to the domestic sphere, which can make local production more vulnerable. As a result of this movement, many controlled-environment agriculture projects will be launched across the country. With the proper technologies, food safety risks can be handled properly. But just one recall, one incident, could be disastrous. The support and focus would need to be there.

At the household level, things have changed significantly as well. Since the world economy is sliding yet again into a recession, consumers are making different food choices. They are opting for different brands, products, and of course, food affordability becomes an acute priority. In any given year, over 4 million cases of foodborne illnesses are reported in Canada. Since we have spent more time at home since March of this year, the number of cases have gone up. More food deliveries are occurring due to the rise of e-commerce. As we try to figure out how to implement more environmentally friendly packaging when delivering fresh food to homes, food protection at the unitary level will be challenged.

COVID-19 has brought its share of changes to the food industry. Industrial practices and the way companies manage inventories and the flow of goods are slowly changing. As such, the use of predictive analytics will likely grow. Food supplies are primarily determined by historical sales order data and not by actual consumption and market data. The disconnect between the two has caused the dichotomy of shortages in some food products and surpluses in others. The need to digitize the food supply chain is greater than ever. As the industry adopts different analytical methods and embraces the use of new technologies, this will certainly help. Food safety risks will also need to be managed differently as volumes will fluctuate and routes to move products will also be modified more frequently.

In terms of scale, food safety risks are greatest in food processing. Indeed, food processing remains our food supply chain’s biggest weakness, in Canada and elsewhere. As mentioned before, with a focus on more food autonomy, the motivation for more nearshoring, local sourcing, and domestic food manufacturing is much more acute. In Canada, costs of distribution and access for food manufacturers to domestic production of raw materials and packaging are major headwinds. The importance of more investments in logical infrastructure cannot be underscored enough.

About the Author:

Known as the “Food Professor”, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Canada. Charlebois is a Professor in Food Distribution and Policy and is renowned for his work in agricultural and food policy, he has published over 500 peer-reviewed journal articles in several academic publications and has authored five books on global food systems; his most recent entitled “Food Safety, Risk Intelligence and Benchmarking.”

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